Wednesday, 31 May 2017
One could say that this chapter contains one of the most difficult passages to interpret (measuring the temple and the two witnesses) and one of the most straightforward to understand (the day of judgement). Having said that about ourselves and our grasp of things does not have to mean that it was hard for the original readers to grasp what the two witnesses and the measuring of the temple signified.
In the section about the witnesses, John refers to two cities. One is called the holy city, but this is not a reference to the earthly Jerusalem. Instead, Jerusalem along with Sodom and Egypt belongs to the unholy city. Frequently in Revelation, the contrast between God’s people and others is illustrated through the idea of two opposing cities. There is God’s city and there is the enemy city. Of course, what makes a place a city is its inhabitants. Without inhabitants, a city does not exist.
It may be worth noting that in this chapter we have the final reference to the cross of Jesus in the Bible (v. 8). We can see from the description that this is how the city of Jerusalem is finally remembered. What could have been her greatest blessing is her most sinful action. She could have been described as the place where the Spirit came in power to bless the message of the cross, but in the main she rejected the message. She forced the followers of the cross to leave, an action which brought blessing elsewhere in the world, but how sad it was for her! We should not be surprised that Jesus wept over her.
Witnessing to the truth before the Judgement (11:1-10)
First, we note that the two witnesses function in the period between when the temple of God was measured and the Day of Judgement. In Ezekiel 40–44, the temple was measured and in Zechariah 2 the city of Jerusalem was also measured and the purpose of those measurements was to show God’s care and protection of Israel and the future prosperity of the city of Jerusalem. So, the instruction to measure the temple here is an indication that God intends to protect his people and prosper them whatever their current circumstances.
What does John mean here by the temple of God? It is unlikely that he means the temple in Jerusalem because most commentators think this book was written twenty years after the city was destroyed in 70 AD. Having said that, John could have seen that temple in a vision and be saying that the temporary temple in Jerusalem was a picture in some ways of another temple, the church.
Connected to the temple that John sees are two courts. The one that he is to measure is the inner court whereas the other one, which he is not allowed to measure, is the outer. (There had been an outer court in the temple at Jerusalem where Gentiles could gather, but they were not allowed into the inner court.) Those in the inner court in John’s vision are beyond the reach of the Gentiles whereas those in the outer are under attack from the Gentiles, indeed under strong attack. It is not difficult to see here a picture of the church triumphant and the church militant.
John draws attention to an altar in the inner court. If he is using the Jerusalem temple as a model, then the altar found in the inner court, or Holy of holies, was the altar of incense (rather than the altar on which sacrifices were offered, which was in the outer courtyard). Incense typified prayer, and it is likely that by this reference to the altar he is stressing the reality that prayer is accepted by God and is connected to his actions. This altar in God’s presence is a pointer to the reality that the prayers of the saints are made perfect in his sight by the intercession of Jesus.
John also says that the period in which this opposition will last is three and a half years (42 months), and this is the same length of time as to when the two witnesses will function (1,260 days is 42 months multiplied by 30 days). This reminds us that God is in control of time, and the period here refers to that between the two comings of Jesus. God allows the opponents to trample his people, which is often hard to understand, but it is also good to know that God remains in charge.
What about the two witnesses?
They speak as prophets and dress like prophets. Often a prophet preached about repentance, and this was the message and garb of the two witnesses. We can say that they called people to repentance while themselves living a life of repentance.
Who are they? John answers this question by linking together a range of Old Testament prophets. He refers to Zerubbabel and Joshua (olive trees in Zechariah 4), to Elijah (who prayed for rain to cease for three and a half years), and to Moses (who brought plagues on Egypt). I would suggest that the two witnesses describe in picture form all who declare the message of coming judgement, although mainly it could describe those who do so in an official way.
John points out that they will be opposed by the devil (the one from the bottomless pit) and he will cause the witnesses to be killed. This opposition will happen everywhere, even in Jerusalem which is here linked to pagan nations. When the witnesses are martyred, people will rejoice and despise even the memory of them. Their message was offensive to most people and they will celebrate when Christ’s witnesses die. This kind of celebration was common in the early church and many Christians gave their lives as part of the entertainment offered to the large crowds that gathered for their local games.
Yet the witnesses possess something incredible, which is the resurrection life of the Saviour. After a period, they are raised from the dead, and their resurrection is followed by their promotion to glory. Their experience is similar as to what happened to Jesus when he rose from the dead. Is John here describing part of what Paul details in 1 Thessalonians 4 when he says that after God’s people have been raised from the dead they, as well as those believers living at the time, will ascend to meet the Lord in the air?
John says that the effect of the raising of the witnesses is further judgement (earthquake) and a belated recognition that the message of the witnesses was true (the onlookers are terrified, and affirmed that judgement was coming, but it was too late for repentance). We can see from this response something of the concern that will mark people when they realise that the Judgement Day has arrived.
The Seventh Trumpet – the Day of Judgement
There are several ways by which we can approach the Day of Judgement. We can consider it from what people will be doing when it happens. Jesus tells us that it will be like what happened on the day when the Flood predicted by Noah came. Or we can look at from how the inhabitants of heaven will react when the day arrives. This second viewpoint is what John now details in describing the blowing of the seventh trumpet.
First, we are told that that the kingdom belongs to God the Father and to Jesus – Jesus is described as the Father’s Christ or anointed one. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that, after he has overpowered all his enemies and delivered the kingdom to the Father, Jesus will continue to function as the Mediator for ever.
Second, we are told the contents of the trumpet blast, which is that the Father through Jesus will have captured or conquered the world and his eternal reign is about to commence. This is a reminder that the activity of Jesus as the Christ, which began at his ascension, has two phases. One is between his ascension and his return and the other is from the return into the unending future.
Third, the divine person who is praised here by the heavenly authorities (the twenty-four elders – angels with places of significance on thrones) is the Father, although they do not address him as such, perhaps because they do not have the same level of relationship with him that believers have. Or maybe they use the divine names that stress his authority over those who have rebelled against him. He is the sovereign, almighty, eternal God.
Fourth, the attitude of the heavenly authorities towards this moment in the divine plan is stated. They are grateful that the time for the judgement has arrived. Two reasons are given for their response. One is that those who destroyed the earth by their sinful practices will be judged and the other is that God’s people (prophets, saints and those who fear his name) will be rewarded for their service.
The God of the covenant
The next stage in the vision is for John to see into heaven. One item was revealed to him – the ark of God’s covenant. The original ark of the covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Solomon. It had been replaced by another one when the temple was rebuilt, but that ark also disappeared when the Romans destroyed the second temple.
The ark of the covenant depicted God’s royal presence with his people. Wherever it was located would indicate those he regarded as his own. In a real sense, it was his throne – the holy of holies was his sacred chamber into which the high priest entered annually on the Day of Atonement. For his people, it was a throne of mercy where he would forgive their sins because atonement had been made.
John here sees that the ark is in heaven, the place where departed believers have gone. God dwells with them and they with him. Of course, there is not a literal ark in heaven. There is no need of a symbol when the reality is there. He rules over them as the merciful Sovereign because of the atonement that was made by Jesus.
The name of the ark points to the covenant God made with his people. In the Bible, there are temporary covenants and there is an eternal covenant. Temporary covenants were made with Noah and Moses, for example, and relate to aspects of life in this world, whether for man in general or for God’s people exclusively. The new covenant, confirmed by the death of Jesus, is an eternal covenant in its effects and its contents reveal that those within it will have true knowledge of God and will be his servants forever.
Why is there a reference to the ark in connection to the second coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement? One answer could be that it pictures the presence of God with his people as they are about to enter their God-given inheritance. When Israel entered Canaan, they were led by the ark (crossing the Jordan under the command of Joshua) and its position symbolised the commencement of a process of judgement on God’s enemies. Here God is about to judge his enemies before leading his people into their eternal inheritance, which helps us appreciate why the phenomena accompanying the appearance of the ark contains elements that would cause a sense of fear and panic. After all, the presence of the ark was a sign of comfort for God’s people and a sign of condemnation for those who were not.
So, the seven trumpets have been blown? God has preserved his church throughout the varied experiences of judgment that came on the earth and its inhabitants. The inhabitants in heaven celebrate his triumph. Where are we in this chapter? We are not yet at the stage of the seventh trumpet, but we are given a foretaste of what will happen when it is blown. John tells us to remember that despite strong opposition in this world the inhabitants of the city of God are safe and will prosper eternally.
Sunday, 21 May 2017
Life with Jesus must have been full of surprises for his followers. I suspect the disciples were anticipating a surprising experience on this occasion, although the one they went through was probably not the one they had anticipated. What would have been the surprise they imagined? They knew they were going over the lake to Gentile areas, as we can see from verse 28. Perhaps they imagined Jesus doing incredible works there and bringing in lots of new followers to the Jewish faith. Jesus had something else in mind for them.
At a more mundane level, they might have expected a smooth sail. After all, it was very calm when they set out. The description of the storm indicates that it was not expected. So in God’s providence the disciples did not get what they would have expected and did get what was unexpected. And I suspect Matthew is saying, ‘Welcome to the unexpected life of discipleship that the followers of Jesus have!’
Yet we must observe that Jesus did not abandon them when the going became tough. He remained with them throughout the period of trouble. Each of the disciples could observe that Jesus was with them. He was not present in a kind of hidden way that would require a great deal of searching before they could find him. Granted his method of being present may not have pleased them – he was asleep – but still he was there. Better to have a Jesus who is asleep than not to have him, is what Matthew is saying.
Jesus was leaving the crowd behind. He had taught many people and he had helped many people in Capernaum. I suppose the question could have been asked as to whether Jesus did anything with only his disciples present. Did they need to have special moments with him? Obviously, Jesus wanted that to happen, and was about to happen when they were out on the boat. Matthew is about to show his readers that disciples need space to see the abilities of Jesus.
There is another obvious lesson from what happened in the boat and that is that Jesus did not do what the disciples were expected to do. He did not take a turn in rowing the boat even although things were hard for them. Sometimes we can give the impression that Jesus should do everything instead of us doing what we should do. We may ask Jesus to bless the gospel in our community, but he may expect us to tell people about it and then he will bless it.
The sweet rest
Matthew tells us that Jesus was asleep in the boat. Why? An obvious answer to that question is the possibility that he was tired from all the exertions that he had engaged in recently. Matthew did highlight the emotional cost in Jesus’ ministry when he said that the Saviour took our illnesses and bore our diseases, with the sad aspects of that pain being to the fore in that quotation. We cannot estimate accurately what seeing the effects of sin in people had on the Saviour, but we know that it would have been very powerful and distressing.
Another obvious answer to the question of how could he sleep in such a situation is that he had perfect trust in his Father. Jesus was constantly aware of the care of God throughout his life. We have no way of knowing whether he had ever been in a storm at sea before – the Gospels tell us that he would experience later another storm on the Sea of Galilee. But this may have been the first one. Whether it was or not, we can see that he trusted in God and was conscious of his care.
Maybe there is a third feature to his sleeping and that could be connected to his contentment with his true disciples. Prior to setting sail, Jesus had to correct two wrong disciples for their assumptions about discipleship. Those individuals were not true disciples. But now he was with the twelve probably, and while one of them was false the others were truly his. Surely, there would have been gladness in his heart at being with them. We could say that Jesus preferred to be with them in the storm than in the calm without them.
The simple prayer
In the storm, the disciples reveal that they had discovered what to do in a crisis, which was to ask Jesus for help. How did they expect Jesus to save them? They probably could not have answered such a point apart from saying that they knew that he could, even if they did not fully know how. Sometimes we want to know what the solution is before the solution is applied whereas at times it might be better to trust the solver.
We do this in life in different ways. When we sense that something is wrong with us physically we will go to the doctor, not because we know the remedy, but because we assume that he will know what to do. We elect politicians because we assume that they, and not us, know what to do. Of course, such gifted people will face matters in which they do not know the answers. But with Jesus he never finds himself in that location of failure. Disciples know that he will always have the answer although they usually will not.
Connected to this is the content of prayer. We can see from their petition that it was short, reverent, united and precise. The shortness is seen in the number of words, the reverence is seen in that they address him as Lord, the unity is seen in that they all approach him, and the precision is seen in the petition they make.
The call to pray raises the question as to whether we ever pray in non-urgent circumstances. Do disciples ever find themselves in a situation in which prayer is not made in a crisis? Which day last month did our prayers for the cause of Christ in our country not occur in a situation of crisis? We know that such a day did not happen. Which day last month did the devil or our own sinfulness not tempt us to say, think or do something wrong? It is possible for us not to regard it as a crisis, and the strength of our prayers will reveal what we think.
Moreover, we can see in this petition its suitability in a wide variety of situations. We have mentioned several of them already, but surely we can see that it is a suitable prayer for someone who wants to become a Christian. Why would anyone want to become a Christian? I sometimes hear people speculating why that would happen. At conversion, there is only one reason why genuine persons would want to become Christians and that is because otherwise they will perish. Why would anyone who did not believe they were perishing want to become a believer?
There are other situations in which this prayer is very suitable. They arise in the lives of disciples every day and therefore it is one we should use all the time. And it may be that using this petition will lead to a conversation, or at least to the awareness of a searching question.
The searching question
We may find it surprising that the first response of Jesus was to get the disciples to think about their spiritual state rather than deal immediately with their request for rescue. Of course, he did not take long to deal with the problem, but we do get a hint here of the priorities of Jesus.
It is important to realise that Jesus asked the question lovingly rather than in an accusing manner. We could say that he is speaking as a pastor rather than as a prosecutor. Or even as a doctor rather than a policeman. The Saviour mentions the cause of their problem. The problem was that they did not have a big enough faith in Jesus and this lack of grasping who he is led to fear.
Yet they had just expressed faith in Jesus when they brought their concerns to him. He wanted them to think about why they had the concerns in the first place. One reason was that they had not paid sufficient attention to his instruction in verse 18, which was that they would get to the other side. They had allowed the crisis of the moment to blur the certainty of his Word. We do that often, daily, hourly! In our troubles, we forget his promises and instead of expressing confidence in our faith we express panic. It is still faith, but it is little faith.
Do you think this statement is true: ‘A believer has no doubt that Jesus can bring into existence the new heavens and new earth, but he often has doubts that Jesus can bring him to dwell there?’ Why is that the case? The believer will mention his sins and his failures usually. Yet often he mentions them through his own assessment rather than by what the Bible says about them. The Bible tells us that we will be sinners until our last breath, that we will need to be forgiven, that we will be forgiven, and that one day those who trust in Jesus will be sinless. We either base our faith on our own assessment or on what the Bible says. And the base will determine whether we have confidence in Jesus or whether we will be like the disciples and panic.
This is not to suggest that we take our sin lightly. Obviously, we must treat it seriously. But what does it mean to treat it seriously? We take it seriously when we consider the greatness of the Saviour as well as the gravity of our sin
The staggering action
We can read the words of an eyewitness in the description in verse 26. Although it did not take long, the description is almost in slow motion. Jesus spoke to the disciples, then arose, and then rebuked the wind and the sea. The description invites to join in and watch the spectacle.
There is the process and there is the outcome and both reveal that Jesus is God. Here is the controller of creation, although here the creation is depicted as a possible enemy (he rebuked the winds and sea). Yet it obeys his command immediately. Here we have a visible reminder that there is nothing in the whole creation that can separate us from the love of God.
Matthew mentions that it was a great calm. I wonder what he meant by that. A great calm indicates more than the cessation of the winds and the pacifying of the sea. Maybe thinking of peace helps us. Peace is more than the absence of war and includes the sensation that all is well. No doubt, there would have been the contrast with the storm and the rapidity of the change. There would have been the external sight of a calm environment and the inner experience of amazement and delight.
Surely, Matthew is saying that here was the Prince of peace towering over the problems that prevent peace. Jesus gave to his disciples a window into the world to come, and through his servant Matthew he has given us the window as well. We should look through it often.
The striking question
Of course, the point of including the question is not for us to wonder about what they thought but about what we think. In a sense, we are better able to answer the question than they were, even although they were actually there. We know what kind of a man Jesus is. We know that he has all power in heaven and on earth. Does our knowledge lead us to be full of wonder at the glory and the grace of the Saviour? Because that is what a true disciple does.
It is the case in the Bible that whenever God’s people found themselves in a situation of difficulty the answer was usually connected to Jesus. This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. Obviously in the Old Testament he appeared in ways that were different from how he appeared when he became a man and lived on earth. But that should not be too surprising for us because we know, as Christians, that Jesus looks different today than he did when he was on earth because today he is glorified.
I will mentions first two occasions in the Old Testament when a sight of the Son of God brought real help to people. The first is the well-known incident recorded in Isaiah 6. Isaiah was probably disturbed that the king had died. What he needed was a vision of a greater King and he tells us in that chapter that he saw the Lord of hosts. When we turn to John 12:41 we discover that the divine person Isaiah saw was Jesus before he became a man. Because Isaiah had this encounter with the Son of God, he was able to continue in his difficult situation.
The second occasion was very different from that of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prince and he had his encounter in the magnificent temple erected by Solomon. Hagar was a runaway slave and she met her Comforter in the desert. The story is told in Genesis. She had run away from the camp of Abraham because she was being cruelly treated. There the angel of the Lord found her by a well and spoke kindly to her. When we put together all the mentions of this angel we find that his name is actually a reference to a divine person, the second person of the Trinity. Hagar realised that he was divine because she called him the God who sees her. Because she had this encounter with the Son of God, she was able to continue in her difficult situation.
When we turn to the New Testament it is the same story. Here are a couple of examples. The apostle Paul had what he calls a thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn was – some say it was a physical illness, others say that it was a difficult, hostile person. Whatever it was, he took the thorn to Jesus and asked him to remove it. The reply he received from Jesus was that the thorn would remain, but that he would be given grace to cope with it. Jesus said to him, ‘My grace is made complete in your weakness.’ Because of his encounter with the Son of God, Paul was able to continue in his difficult situation.
We can go to the last book of the Bible and its human author. John was the last of the apostles and an old man, probably in his nineties. After years of serving Jesus, he found himself affected by a fierce outbreak of persecution that led to him being exiled to the island of Patmos. There Jesus came and revealed his glory to his servant. We have a description of Jesus in Revelation 1 and it portrays one who is marked by glory and power. When John sees him, he crumples. The response of Jesus reveals that his glory is gentle glory because he bends down and touches his friend and says to him, ‘Fear not.’ Jesus had a role for John even though he was exiled and that was to provide the Book of Revelation for his people. Because of this encounter with the Son of God, John was able to continue in his difficult situation.
For the world
We all know that Jesus is the answer for the world today. Yet we have to remember that he has always been the answer. If we go back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had sinned, things looked very bleak. Had God’s plan for having a family composed of his creatures failed? Although that seemed to be the case, God appeared there with an amazing announcement that one would yet come and destroy the havoc caused by the devil when he led Adam and Eve into sin. When that One would come, he would win an incredible victory on behalf of the human race. The victory would involve him being scarred, but yet he would triumph, which is a prediction of what took place on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.
We move on in the biblical account and we come to a man in a pagan city called Ur. Suddenly, God appears to him and tells him to move to an unknown country. He is an old man, nevertheless the divine visit was so powerful that he obeyed and went. Later on, Abraham had repeated visits from God as described in the Book of Genesis. In one of those visits, God informed Abraham that he would have a son and from that family line One would be born that would be a blessing to all the nations. The promised person was Jesus. Jesus tells us that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus because it would be a day of worldwide blessing. Yet when he was given the promise, there was not much evidence, if any, that this would happen. Jesus was the answer for the world in Abraham’s time even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.
We can move on to the time of the prophet Isaiah, whom we have already mentioned because of his personal encounter with God. Isaiah lived before the captivity in Babylon. As we can imagine, that captivity was a time of national crisis because it looked as if God had so punished his people that they had no future. Yet Isaiah was given by God wonderful messages about Jesus being the answer for the situation regarding Israel and regarding the whole world. We are familiar with the incredible descriptions of the suffering of Jesus in Isaiah 53. Often, we turn to that chapter when we have the Lord’s Supper. Yet the chapter is not only about the sufferings of Jesus. It is also a prophecy of worldwide blessing. Indeed, that is the focus with which the prophetic message at the close of Isaiah 52 begins. Isaiah lived in a difficult time, yet he was told that Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.
For the church
Jesus is the Answer we know, most of the New Testament letters were written to churches facing difficulties. Some of the problems were the consequences of persecution, as we can see in 1 Peter. Others were affected by wrong teachings about Jesus, as we can see in Paul’s short letter to the Colossians. And others, such as in 1 Corinthians, were written to churches facing lots of internal problems. What was the answer that was given by the biblical writers? The answer was to focus on Jesus.
We can consider what Paul said to the church in Corinth. We know that it had a range of problems. Yet we find him saying at the end of chapter 15 these words: ‘Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.’ He tells them that they are a family of beloved brothers, a reminder that they belong to one another. He tells them that they should work hard for the Lord, and that they can do so even although they had had faced difficulties. And he tells them that what they do for Jesus is not done in vain. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.
In contrast to the urban city-church in Corinth, Colosse was a village church. What was Paul’s advice to the church in Colosse? Read Colossians 3:1: ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Paul encourages the Colossians to go to Jesus and obtain spiritual blessings from him. Even although things had not been what they should have been in Colosse, Jesus was still the gracious Saviour who would provide for their spiritual needs. This was a tremendous encouragement to the believers there. Jesus would forgive them and continue to help them. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.
The last church we can consider is one whose location we do not know, although we know what race they were. An unknown author wrote a letter to Christian Jews who were struggling in their faith. They were facing strong opposition from the civil authorities and also from their own countrymen for abandoning the Jewish faith. What encouragement did the author have for his readers? He mentions a variety of features that belonged to the religious practices of the Jews and point out that with regard to each of them Jesus is far better. Jesus has given to his people a better sacrifice, a better homeland, a better hope. He reminds them that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. In their difficult situation of persecution and bewilderment at times, serving Jesus together was the answer.
Here we are today living in our circumstances. We have seen in our meditation that Jesus is the answer to individuals and their problems, to the world and its spiritual problems, and to churches with its problems. Jesus is the answer to every Christian congregation today, although they all face different circumstances. As we close, I would mention briefly three unchangeable realities.
First, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus. Listen to Paul’s words at the end of Romans 8: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Second, the promises of God remain sure. Listen to what Paul said to the church in Corinth: ‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]’ (1 Cor. 1:8). Whatever else that means, it means that we can ask God to keep his great and precious promises, promises that Peter says have been given to us (1 Pet. 1:12).
Third, while the past and present are important, we are to look ahead to the day of glory. The end day is the important day and we are to live for that day. We are even to anticipate what Peter says about it, which is that grace will be given to us on that day (1 Pet. 1:13). We look ahead to it and see all of God’s people glorified and perfect. That is what is going to happen to them together. Whenever we interact with them now, we do so with the knowledge that one day they and us will all be like Jesus. On that day, we will discover in a wonderful way that Jesus is the answer.
Sunday, 14 May 2017
We might be prone to assume that Matthew is being a bit sporadic here as he details three individuals whom Jesus helped as well as a large number of cases of whom no details are given. But he is not being sporadic. Instead he wants his readers to realise that Jesus is the promised Messiah and then come to a decision about Jesus for themselves, and in order to bring this about he refers to two individuals whom Jesus did not help. So there is a contrast here between people as well as a challenge to us about what we think of Jesus.
So far in this section of his Gospel, Matthew has mentioned a leper and a Gentile proselyte. Now he mentions a woman who is suffering from an illness. While such descriptions may not make us sit up and wonder, they would have been like bombshells to many of his first readers. He shows that Jesus is willing to help the outcasts and those on the outside in one way or another. Being a woman was bad enough, but to be a sick woman was worse!
Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law
I assume this verse causes some problems for Roman Catholic writers since they don’t think popes should be married and they imagine that Peter was the first Pope. But since Peter was never a pope, the problem is one based on adding requirements to the Bible that the Bible does not require. Peter would have been appalled if someone had told him that such claims would later be made about him. Other references tell us that his wife travelled with him wherever he went to spread the gospel of Jesus.
As we know, the four Gospel writers, when they are describing the same event, sometimes mention details not found in the other accounts. Mark tells us that those in the house told Jesus about the mother-in-law’s fever. Luke says that Jesus healed her by rebuking the fever. Matthew, under the leading of the Spirit, stresses the eyes and the touch of Jesus.
Referring to the eyes draw attention to the mind of a person, to what he is thinking when he sees something. I wonder what Jesus thought as he saw his friend’s mother lying ill. He would be sad, he would see the effects of sin (all diseases exist because of our original sin), and he would see one of his people whom he eternally loved. Then he touched her, which informs us of his willingness to identify with needy people, as well as helping her sense his sympathy as well as his power.
Matthew mentions the response of the woman, which was that she began to serve Jesus. I assume she did some work in the home that day. Matthew highlights that she served Jesus whereas other accounts say that she served Jesus and his disciples. Why did Matthew write in such a way? Probably the answer is that the unnamed mother-in-law did what everyone whom Jesus helps should do. So she becomes a model disciple and we should thank God that there are countless such disciples scattered around the world who serve Jesus out of gratitude. And she is a contrast to the two would-be disciples mentioned later.
Jesus and the crowd
In the incident with Peter’s mother-in-law, we see the compassion and competency of Jesus. But Matthew does not want to leave the story there, wonderful though it is. So he mentions in roughly the same amount of words that Jesus showed the same compassion and competency for a large number of people. It is obvious from Matthew’s description that no trouble was too difficult for Jesus to deal with.
We should observe the location of this large display of grace. It happened outside Peter’s house, or even inside it. I suppose we see in this reality a couple of lessons. One is that when Jesus rescues us from a trouble he expects us to make our assets available for his service. The other is that we have no idea what Jesus can do with our assets.
One detail mentioned by Luke but which is not so clear in Matthew’s account is that Jesus dealt with each of the crowd individually – he laid hands on each. We know that Jesus could have healed all of them simultaneously, but he chose to help each of them individually.
Matthew’s description of the work of Jesus is twofold. He says that Jesus dealt with two different problems. One was demon oppression and the other was physical illness. What is demon oppression? It must refer to attacks by the devil’s kingdom on people and I suppose this could show itself in a variety of ways. In whatever ways it showed itself here, Jesus was able to deal with it and reveal that he was more powerful than the devil. The other problem was physical illness and Jesus was able to cure all the sufferers, which is a reminder that he is the re-creator of people.
Matthew mentions that this activity of Jesus was a fulfilment of prophecy. The text is from Isaiah 53:4, which says that the Servant has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Matthew has translated the Hebrew and therefore we can see what the verse means. The griefs and the sorrows arise from devilish influences, illnesses and diseases. It is not difficult for us to see how such sufferings would be very sorrowful for those afflicted by them.
What does Matthew mean by this? Does he only mean that some people would be cured by Jesus at one time in their lives? There is no suggestion that those healed by him would never be ill again. Therefore, I would say that we should regard those healings as signs pointing to what Jesus would ultimately do. He came to destroy the works of the devil, which he did at the cross and will yet do when all of the devil’s influences will be removed from the earth.
The intention of Jesus was not only to remove the consequences of sin, but also to deal with the cause of sufferings, which ultimately is sin. So we could regard his miracles as signs pointing to what will happen to people after Jesus pays the penalty for their sin. At some stage, those who trust in him will be restored physically and spiritually and be delivered from the grip of the devil. Ultimately this will happen at the future resurrection and renewal of all things.
The priority of following Jesus
Jesus decides that he and his disciples should go over to the other side of the sea of Galilee. This simple activity tested the people to see whether they would continue to follow Jesus. Matthew records the responses of two individuals at that time.
The scribe – too eager
The first comes from a scribe who stated that he would follow Jesus everywhere. No doubt, some of the disciples would have been impressed by the possibility of a distinguished persons like a scribe joint their number. What did Jesus have to say to him?
Jesus mentioned two details in his response. One of the details concerned his name and the other his present possessions. The use of the name ‘Son of man’ may be in response to the name that the scribe gave to him, which was only ‘Teacher.’ Could it be that the scribe had too low an opinion of Jesus? Maybe all he was saying was that Jesus was the best teacher he had heard. After all, the title ‘Son of man’ is a reference to the prophecy in Daniel about God’s chosen Ruler who would have universal power. It is true that a real disciple must have a true understanding of who Jesus is.
The Saviour wants us to appreciate who he truly is. As the Son of man, he is the King of kings, the one who received glory from God because of his amazing work on the cross. He has now been highly exalted and given the name of Lord. Our Master is much more than a teacher, although he is the best Teacher.
The scribe also seemed to have a wrong perception of the benefits of religion. As a scribe, he would have known that the position of religious teacher was a lucrative one, with many social and financial benefits. He may have imagined that Jesus would make a successful career from his abilities and that there would be other benefits for those who followed him. He must have been very surprised to hear Jesus say that following him would not bring riches in this life.
We are not to imagine that Jesus did not have places to stay at times. When he went to Jerusalem, he often stayed with his friends in Bethany. Yet it seems that he also would spend nights in the Garden of Gethsemane – after all, that is how Judas knew where to find Jesus when he was betrayed. The family home was in Capernaum, and probably Jesus could stay there. What we should see Jesus telling this man is that following him was not always a path to worldly promotion and prosperity. A disciple of Jesus should not expect too much from this world and be prepared to wait until the next for the rewards of serving Jesus.
The scribe probably imagined that he was adding to the prestige of Jesus by offering to follow him. This would not be too surprising since he had no conception of the greatness of Jesus. The scribe had no real conception that Jesus came to deliver from sin and to enable people to live a life of holiness. We have no idea whether or not this scribe ever became a real disciple of Jesus.
The son – not eager enough
The second would-be disciple had to learn about priorities. There are various suggestions as to what he meant. It is unlikely that his father had just died, because if he had, his son would be with the family mourning the loss of his father and therefore not with Jesus. When a person died in that part of the world, they were usually buried quickly, on the day itself or the next.
There are two options as to what he meant. One option is that the father was still alive, but aged and drawing near the end of life, with likelihood that his end was near. The other option concerns the custom that a son would transfer the bones of his dead father to an ossuary a year after his death. In this option, the father may have died a few weeks or months previously and the son was asking to wait a few more months to carry out this task. It looks as if the man wanted to fulfil family responsibilities and then he would follow Jesus. He was putting cultural expectations, the assumptions that others would expect him to make, above the requirements of Jesus.
The reply of Jesus dealt with this reluctance of the disciple to put Jesus first. His words could suggest that while the spiritually dead can wait around in order to bury the physical dead, his disciples have to serve the kingdom of God immediately. A real disciple will not use long-term family responsibilities as a reason for not serving Jesus. The list of options in this kind of outlook is endless. We can say to Jesus that we will do something after such an event or development happens. His reply and challenge is to get involved in the work of the kingdom now.
We cannot deduce from this statement that Jesus wants his disciples to ignore family responsibilities. After all, he had just healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The difference was that Peter and his family were putting Jesus first whereas this man had a different attitude.
This would-be disciple had to learn that he could not lay out the terms of true discipleship. Only Jesus has the authority to do so. This disciple was actually using legitimate concerns as a reason not to become a wholehearted follower of Jesus. But Jesus has the authority to claim first place over every area of life.
So as we come to the close of the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum at that time, we need to ask what kind of disciple are we. Are we like the healed leper, doing our own will rather than what Jesus said? Are we like the centurion who recognised the greatness of Jesus and honoured him? Are we like Peter’s mother-in-law who quietly served Jesus out of gratitude? Are we like the scribe with good words that meant little? Are we like the son who was not prepared to put Jesus first? Each of us knows the answer to that question.